Evangelicals often give it no thought today, but visitors from other church backgrounds are often astonished when they discover most Evangelical Churches serve grape juice and not wine for communion. The grape juice itself is not my issue in this article (more in second post soon) but how this new tradition spread like wildfire in Evangelical circles about 30-45 years ago certainly is: It came into common use because of a lie. This story serves as an important lesson on how terrible discernment is among the Evangelical community and our willingness to compromise truth simply to fill more pews.
The use of grape juice came primarily from Fundamental Baptist Churches in the South and Mid-West who made no bones since Prohibition about believing drinking alcohol of any kind is sin. Astute readers of the Bible will note that drinking alcohol is not prohibited, Jesus turned water into wine not the other way around, and Paul advocated it for health, and banning it outright is a form of horrific legalism (see Col 2:20-23). But to get past all of that, hide its legalistic roots, draw old-school fundamentalists legalistic members into the Evangelical movement… we created a lie. Although it faded a bit from its marquis and has moved to the background today, the lie that destroyed 2000 years of Christian tradition is: The Bible doesn’t actually doesn’t refer to “real” wine, it really means non-alcoholic “grape juice” instead.
But anyone who knows simple chemistry or wine making would know this idea is absurd. All ripe grapes already contain in perfect amounts everything like sugar, water and even wild yeast (which is that white-ish dust seen on the outside of grapes) needed to ferment and make wine. Because of this the moment all grapes are crushed the wine making process begins almost immediately and automatically. Today we can arrest this process by killing the yeast with chemicals and refrigerating the grapes, but this was impossible until modern technology. This is process is so guaranteed the only way in Jesus time to drink grape juice was effectively to go the vineyard during the fall harvest, crush the grapes yourself and drink it that same day. The other lie right next to this one is that all the wine Jesus drunk was all low alcohol wine. Wine without modern preservatives must have 8% or greater alcohol content because it would spoil quickly, especially in the heat of the Levant. The technology to either make and store wine of lower alcohol content also didn’t exist until modern times.
Additionally, we know exegetically from other scriptures that wine at this time had alcohol otherwise there was no for the Pharisees to complain about Jesus drinking wine (Luke 7:34) which Jesus does’t deny, they wouldn’t have complained if Jesus been sipping “grape juice”.
But how grape juice came into common practice and the lie that drove it is crucial to understand how and why Evangelicals so frequently fail in areas of discernment. Have you ever once heard anyone challenge our grape juice tradition or the common lie behind it? Or questioned whether it is even true? I have not. The most frightening thing to me is that this lie passed unnoticed among possibly tens of thousands of Evangelical pastors and we threw out a 2000-year-old Christian tradition out the window without much thought. There were no synods, conferences, debates or even great theological papers. We just threw wine out on the whim of one lie… and that is a very dangerous precedent.
Let us also consider how easily and blindly accepting this lie undermines the authority of Scripture, when we can easily change the definitions of words completely unchallenged such as “wine” to suit our agendas. If Jesus didn’t really drink wine, we are teaching that the Bible can’t really be trusted.
There is a biblical case for making alternatives available to wine for those who are alcoholic, don’t drink for their conscience, health or family history; or even practical reasons in a large gathering. Historically the church allowed that taking bread only still fulfilled the command for Holy Communion. But that is not what we did… we lied instead…and threw out the most revered tradition in the church history with it, and this is a huge issue.
The lesson here of course isn’t really to demand your church switches back to wine (although I will make a case for this in a second post). The real lesson is all believers need to be responsible for their own discernment, and question everything, even our leaders and “rumors” before we swallow them without thinking. This one lie that “Jesus drank only grape juice” created a huge opening for others like it to spread.